A hero lost, but forever loved: Stan Smolen

June 8, 2020

Other News

When my sister Lynn and I were young, Daddy was our hero. As we grew up and learned his stories we realized he was an American hero, too. Our precious father, Stan Smolen, died last month at the age of 95. He was a veteran of WWII who served his country proudly. He was a courageous 19-year-old First Lieutenant Navigator in the Army Air Corp flying 35 missions on a B-17 Bomber. But most importantly, he was the patriarch of our family.

Our father was born on February 12, 1925, to parents who had immigrated from Russia to escape anti-Semitism. He grew up in Philadelphia with two older sisters, and they lived a modest, but comfortable life until the Great Depression. Daddy always told us the family moved every time the rent was due. We thought he was kidding, but it was probably not far from the truth. When my grandfather lost his business, they were forced to make many moves and ultimately had to break up the family and live with three different relatives for a year. Eventually, with the offer of work, they reunited and moved to Washington, DC. This move changed Daddy’s life forever, when at a high school Jewish fraternity party, he was introduced to a very beautiful 15-year-old, named Patricia Rose.
That night, 17-year-old Stan told Rose he was going to marry her someday.

Daddy’s family was very passionate about being Americans. Therefore, when the United States entered the war, Stan who was a student at George Washington University, immediately signed up to serve. Knowing he wanted to fly and be an officer, Stan signed up for the Army Air Corps, which eventually became the Air Force. After a year of training, he graduated as a Navigator and became part of a 10-man crew of a B-17 bomber destined for the European front. At age 19, my father navigated his crew across the Atlantic Ocean using radio signals from Greenland and Iceland and the stars as his guide. He used to marvel that today’s golfers use GPS to get to the next hole.

The crew, based near London, became his family and during the 35 combat missions over France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, they depended on each other for their existence. During their missions, they suffered broken wings spinning out of control pinning them to seats and walls, and being hit constantly with flack and bullets breaking windows and damaging the exterior. Their most dangerous mission was when they crash-landed in Brussels.

Their engine was hit during a bombing near Frankfort creating a fire. While they prepared to eject, the pilot was eventually able to land. It might have been a situation where they could have been captured by the Germans, but the British had liberated Belgium the previous day. They entered a city in celebration and were probably the first Americans there.

Many decades later my dad heard Kitty Saks’ story at the opening of the Holocaust Commission’s What We Carry program and looked forward to meeting her and exchanging memories of that day they unknowingly shared. The day they met, they shared memories, hugs, and tears.

My dad also had the privilege of meeting Bill Jucksch, one of our local courageous liberators. We spent a morning in Bill’s room filled with WWII memories. Sharing war stories, like old friends, Bill told him how every time a B-17 formation flew over they would cheer and jump and wave.

My father finished his bombing missions and returned to America in 1945 at the age of 19 as a First Lieutenant with a distinguished Flying Cross and an Oak Leaf Cluster air medal. Now that he was finally home, he proposed to the girl of his dreams, Patricia Rose, and they truly lived “happily ever after.”

After finishing his service, he began his career in men’s retailing. Moving from a stock boy at 15 to a buyer and then to president and CEO of 4 major men’s’ stores, including Shulman’s in Norfolk.

Lynn and I grew up in the beautiful city of Asheville, N.C. where we had a wonderful Jewish community that we were all very active in. Daddy was president of the JCC and B’nai Brith, in addition to many business and civic organizations. Our household was always filled with love and my father’s amazing laugh.

When we left for college, my parents moved to Norfolk, which eventually caused us and our husbands, Larry Siegel and Jerry Hankin, to move to Virginia Beach. Lynn and I built homes next door to one another, inspired by our parent’s love of family staying close. Here we raised our children, two girls each. After our parents’ moves to Buffalo and Chicago, they retired to Virginia Beach to join our growing families.

Our parents loved to travel together. To celebrate their 60th anniversary, they took an around-the-world 66-day cruise. Over the years they had visited every continent!

Eventually, all their granddaughters got married and had kids of their own and all moved back to Virginia Beach. Pat and Stan loved their time watching their great grandchildren grow up and were an active part of their lives. Our beloved mother passed away six years ago and although we thought our father would die of a broken heart, he instead put his immense love and strength into his family and made a new life for himself at Atlantic Shores. At the age of 90, he became a writer and would spend hours at his computer writing his autobiography, as well as incredible stories about the war, travels with Pat, and the bond of family.

My father loved to celebrate all of his granddaughters’ weddings, two great granddaughters going to college, and attended and spoke at four great grandchildren’s B’nai mitzvahs.

My dad always had advice and ideas. He mentored and consulted with small business owners for many years after retirement. His one regret was the advice he gave to a young tie salesman telling him not to go into designing clothes since he was doing a great job selling ties. His name was Ralph Lauren. At 92, my father called Nordstrom with some customer service ideas. Mr. Nordstrom took the call personally, and they chatted for 45 minutes.

After a trip to St. Petersburg, he wrote to the Kremlin about how they could improve the gift shop at the Hermitage. He never received a response!

My father was a man of much wisdom, a wonderful sense of humor, a teller of great stories, a giver of warm hugs, always greeting with a kiss on both cheeks. He was loved by everyone who met him.

Stan Smolen was a man of many names: Daddy to myself and Lynn. Dad to our husbands’ Larry and Jerry. Poppa Stan to his grandchildren, Shaye and Glen Arluk, Kari Amuial, Megan and Steve Zuckerman, and Ryan and Dan Miller.

Best of all he was just Poppy to his 10 adoring great grandchildren, Brianna, Madison, Dylan, Jordan, Devon,
Jonah, Chloe, Cameron, Molly, and Jackson.

Finally, to his Country, his name was Hero.

- Leslie Siegel

Letter to the Editor